FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE

Jackson County's Katie Hitt (left) celebrates with Cadence Thao after a point Tuesday (Oct. 29) in the Panthers' 3-0 loss to Westminster in the Class AAA volleyball Final Four.

ATLANTA — The Jackson County volleyball team faced a task too great to overcome in the semifinals, but its place in school history is firmly set.

The Panthers (38-13) fell to juggernaut Westminster 3-0 on the road in the program’s first-ever appearance in the Final Four.

The history-making season won’t soon be forgotten by those who made it happen.

“I’ll definitely look back on it for years to come,” senior setter Kylee Zimmer said. “Even when I’m older, I’ll probably tell my kids. I’ll be able to share these memories with the younger girls, if I ever come back and watch them play.”

The last public school remaining in a semifinal bracket with private school powers Westminster, Pace Academy and Greater Atlanta Christian, the Panthers fell 25-16, 25-15, 25-7 to the Wildcats.

“Westminster is an extremely talented team, very well-coached and they deserve to be a top team in Georgia,” Jackson County coach Jeff White said. “We did our best, but could not measure up to their size, skill and speed. Our younger players now have an idea of what it takes to be an elite team that can win a state championship.”

Westminster (29-14), which has three Division-I college commits on its roster, featured six-foot outside hitter Mary Morgan, who rarely missed on a kill opportunity when the Wildcats got her the ball in system. Morgan started on the best U16 team in the nation, according to White.

“Her training and experience is just over the top of anything we could possibly have,” White said.

Jackson County started the match with its most competitive set. It only trailed 8-7 in the first set after a Katie Hitt kill, but Westminster rolled off eight of the next 10 points to take a 16-9 lead.

The Panthers never came closer than four points the rest of the way in the opening frame.

Westminster distanced itself from the Panthers with an 8-2 run midway through the second set in winning 25-15. The Wildcats then opened with the first six points of the final set, part of a 19-4 run, as they won the match going away.

“It’s sad that the season is over, but we played as well we could have hoped,” Zimmer said. “The last set, we lost steam, but we came out here knowing how good they were, and we had nothing to lose. We played our best.”

White pointed to the accomplishment of venturing this far into the postseason and what that might generate for the future.

“Our seniors have left a legacy that will motivate our future Jackson County volleyball players to one day be able to compete with and beat a team like Westminster,” he said. “They are the gold standard, and we need to step up our level of commitment, training, focus and skill, or this result will continue to happen.

“We have great athletes in Jackson County, and I believe that one day we will have the best team in Georgia, leaving people wondering how we did it. Our younger kids have learned from this group of gritty, tough and underestimated group of seniors and are highly motivated to move the needle forward and pursue excellence.”

White pointed to the pipeline of younger players that will cycle up to the varsity. Jackson County’s junior varsity went 31-4, and the middle school program has 25 players who “dominated their matches.” Club ball participation has also grown throughout the program.

“Three of our eighth-grade kids – all played JV — made teams with one of the best club programs in the country, A5,” White said. “We have kids playing for GA5, Atlanta Extreme, Lanier and others.”

White said his team will learn from the loss to Westminster.

“We should be thanking Westminster for teaching us a lesson on what it takes to be a champion,” he said. “I have a saying, ‘Prepare daily for the toughest challenges you might face.’ Well, the kids in our program now know what that means. We will pursue better every day until people say it’s not fair to play us.”

While this Jackson County team ranks the best in program history, Zimmer — who will play at Oglethorpe next year — hopes the best is yet to come for Panther volleyball.

“Well, I hope we’re not the best,” Zimmer said. “I hope teams go further but, as for right now, I’m very happy we made it this far, and that we’re going to go down as the program that really started it up.

“I’ve been here for four years and I really feel like I’ve seen the program grow from my freshman year, not being very competitive to making it to the Final Four. We’ve put in a lot of work, and I know these younger girls are ready, and I can see the commitment they have to take this team even farther than the Final Four.”

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